The global language

Atletico Madrid, up 1-0 twenty six minutes in, is switched for Liverpool vs Bournemouth. The Premier League remains on top, at least in this craft beer pub in Hong Kong. Having no allegiance in either match I am happy to watch the world through football. My joy is for the game; I am glad to be back where a sports bar means the global football rather than the American one.

Fifteen years ago a boy who had weekdays rather than weekends off in Tokyo used to spend them in a used book store in Ebisu. Here, in the rain of Tokyo Novembers he would browse and feel at home. The store, since closed, was a treasure of second-hand English for a boy who could not read Japanese.

The comfort he found in Good Day Books was not just the bookstore joy of familiar titles and new discoveries. Instead it was the atmosphere, quiet save for BBC radio, which at his hours of visiting meant mostly traffic reporting of the London evening commute, a perfect sound for Tokyo mornings. In these hours of browsing he was no longer in Ebisu, no longer an English teacher with a Thursday off, but a solitary spirit in the global remnants of the British Empire.

In a Thai hotel years later he waits for his wife, arriving from Seoul a day later. The TV in the room they will share turns on at his entry, and so it lingers as he unpacks, displaying helpful information, local restaurants. After a while he changes the channel without purpose, stopping on the local weather. Local, in this multinational chain hotel, means regional, a map that covers Bangkok, Phuket, Chang Mai and also Singapore, Jakarta, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing, Tokyo, and Sydney. The weather map is one of global cities of the eastern hemisphere, and he lets it be, watching tomorrow’s highs scroll through in a comforting fashion, no longer alone.

In two thousand fourteen he sits in a Japanese restaurant behind a Dongguan hotel on a Friday evening by himself. This is the middle of a work trip run long, a factory visit supposed to take one week that will now take multiple. Similar, he suspects, to the Japanese business men at the next table, who were the restaurant owner’s target market. Unlike them, he is alone, without colleagues to pour sake for. And so he watches TV. Clips of Tokyo neighborhoods, local stories, weather, and traffic from the capital filled the small CRT screen above the entry way. He watches the news in Japanese with much the same pleasure as he’d taken in the BBC traffic reports of two thousand two. It represents much the same: a bit of the wider world brought into this small establishment.

And so the comfort I take in Hong Kong at finding this pub and it’s channel-surfing bartender is of no surprise. Swapping La Liga for the EPL is a choice that I can understand, if not take sides on. The broadcast, without sound, is of the kind of global background noise that I love, and have always loved, that reminds me I am no longer in America, no longer at home but always here.


Construction crews

Construction in Hong Kong

Out the window of my tiny Hong Kong hotel the scaffolding rises. In a wonderful match, my room is at exactly the height of the top-most floor of the buildings being built in front of this Hotel Ibis in North Point. The last time I was here, in December, the construction did not reach my room, topping out several floors below. Now I have a front row seat to the working day of a Hong Kong construction crew. They are busy today, a Saturday, having started at seven am. The buildings, a set of apartment towers along the bay, are already twenty plus stories tall, cased in the green netting so common to construction sites here. Like most their scaffolding is all bamboo, the tops of it poking out of the netting like a strange headless forest.

In the United States, in San Francisco, this would be amazing. Fifty to a hundred people that I can see, three cranes, and everything surrounded by bamboo. Here, like most of Asia, it’s just how buildings go up. Flexible, light, and resilient, the bamboo moves with the wind, though not enough to notice without tedious observation. Beyond the construction site from me lies the harbor, full of sailboats and tugboats moving past. Across the water lies the old airport, now a cruise ship terminal, and a large collection of working ships, dredgers, short haulers, and barges. Beyond that high rises stretch to the mountains. The sky is blue, though brown on the horizon just over the mountains. For Hong Kong it is a cold eighteen degrees C.

These apartments are the second phase of a project, and their identical siblings sit completed just up the road. They will block most of the wonderful views of this incredibly reasonably priced hotel, which is sad but to be expected. Nothing lasts forever, especially not budget hotel rooms in Hong Kong with full harbor views. Better to enjoy, and move on, like this construction crew. I wonder where they are from, how far they had to travel to be here at seven am on a Saturday in early March. Are they locals, or from the mainland? From a hundred yards away at twenty three storeys up they look local, and stay busy. There are few smoke breaks, few idle minutes. That isn’t to say they’re always moving, like all construction crews they wait for materials, for the crane, and have meetings to discuss the next stage at various points through out the day. Unlike Japan they wear no uniforms, instead mostly t-shirts, jeans, and hard hats. It’s a pleasant look, an almost American look. If Americans stood twenty three stories up on bamboo. If Americans built a half dozen apartment blocks at a time, in a city already full of them.

In some ways Hong Kong represents so much of my struggle with the United States, and I can’t help but see the echoes of San Francisco in the bay and mountains. That overlapping view defines much of my thinking, and the frequent bounces from one to the other reinforce the symmetry while highlighting the differences. I am here again for the weekend, sick at the end of a week spent in country, Shenzhen Dongguan Zhuhai and back in a loop of vans and trains and ferries that has given my throat little time to heal. These two days, then, are a break, a peaceful moment with a view. Breaks like this at the end of trips, as I’ve written before, are something I’ve learned, a way to come home relaxed instead of exhausted. A way to return, happy, to San Francisco and my cat.

Past waiting

Nine years ago I quit my job in Shanghai and began the process of moving back to the United States. I was excited.

I am again excited. What has changed in the past nine years? Looking around our small San Francisco apartment in the dark of four am the answers are obvious. The cat, currently curled inside his spherical palace, relies on us. That, and the pronoun in the previous sentence.

In Shanghai I had books, like the ones on these walls. They went into green boxes from China Post and then back, via scooter, one at a time to be shipped to the US, to an address in a city I barely knew.

In San Francisco I have books too. Two weeks ago we sorted them all, a pile to keep a pile to donate. The keep pile isn’t much larger than it was in Shanghai. Some of the Ondaatje and Gibson came to the US in those green boxes. Most were purchased here, replacing older versions pressed on friends. This is true for more than books. So much of what I loved and left behind in China I’ve re-purchased. Even the sofa I’m lying on now is the same. As Tara would say, that’s the beauty of the global megacity. IKEA and Kinokuniya everywhere.

Further surveying the apartment there are some differences. I definitely have more backpacks now. Or at least I think so. It’s hard to remember exactly what I moved with. A Tom Bihn bag I am sure of. The custom RELoad bag arrived in Houston. The Outlier, Goruck, Timbuk2 and Peak bags are San Francisco discoveries.

Mostly, though, we will pack light, taking as little as possible. And so, in these free weeks in the spring of twenty seventeen, I begin the process of disassembling our life, sorting through back up cables, back up bowls, and back up hoodies, and reducing in all directions.

In the afternoons I go to the bouldering gym, practicing a new skill with the same joy that I practiced slacklining in the grassy quad of Jiaotong University almost a decade ago. Being able to sit and think, to pack, and to work out in the freedom of the gym’s quiet hours are stranger abilities now than they seemed in two thousand eight, which makes me think of how our life has changed since.

Mostly I realize how lucky I am, to have been so free at twenty eight, and to be again so at thirty seven. And how lucky we are, to be able to consider so many options.

Including the cat, who loves the homebody I have become.